Dean Nolen discusses “Mamma Mia!” memories from auditions to how he was affected by 9/11.
The first time Dean Nolen was in New York for “Mamma Mia!” he was rehearsing for his Broadway debut in October during Sept. 11, 2001. The next time, he arrives in New York on the 14th anniversary of 9/11 to attend the final showing of this production of “Mamma Mia!”
“It was a life-altering day for all of us, certainly a mark in history,” the head of the acting and directing program at Texas Tech University said. “So ‘Mamma Mia!' left a very large, personal connection with me just by virtue of the fact that we were there and working on the show. We all thought ‘Wow, this is really such a serious experience we're going through here in New York City.'
“It didn't take us long to realize what we were offering in this show was a way to escape the horrors of 9/11 and make audiences feel good despite an event so devastating to so many. I think it became clear to us we could not live in fear, we had to move forward and live our lives. I think that's what all Americans started feeling. That was the reasoning behind us picking up with rehearsals Sept. 12 and moving forward.”
Nolen, an assistant professor of acting in the School of Theatre & Dance, said had he not been rehearsing for the show, he wasn't sure what he would have done. He remembers nurses coming to see the show three or four times after it opened. The cast could always tell when there was a dignitary in the audience because of the increased number of secret service agents that were present in and around the theater.
Nolen tells a story about former Secretary of State Colin Powell attending the show and sitting next to Donny Osmond. That was the same night the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, also was in attendance.
“It was a very bizarre evening seeing that combination of people,” he said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu was standing up in front of his seat dancing. Then Secretary Powell came down the aisle and shook his tail feathers right in front of the stage with all the other folks who came running down the aisles. It was a celebration.”
And the celebration has continued for 14 years, with sold-out performances and lines of people waiting outside to meet the cast, Nolen said, before making its Broadway exit Saturday night (Sept. 12). Nolen was invited back to New York for the final performance of this production and will be in attendance, with several other original cast members.
Participating in “Mamma Mia!” was a positive experience for Nolen, the cast and the audience. He thinks there could be a revival in later years or with a new generation, but at this time, it was time to let go of this Broadway production.
“It'll be a beautiful moment,” Nolen said. “I think the show is such a loving portrait of family, of an unconventional family, of relationships between mother, daughter and best friends, and there's a wonderful adult component to the show. It met a great need for people who needed to enjoy and strictly be entertained and moved. Was it the most earth-shattering, Pulitzer Prize of dramatic moments in the history of the theater? No. Was it designed to be that? No. It was meant to be what it has been, and that is a feel-good, moving piece of musical theater.”
Nolen originated the role of Harry Bright in the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” He got a call from his agent about auditioning but was a little hesitant because although he was familiar with ABBA, they weren't his favorite band growing up in the 1970s. Nolen said he eventually relented and attended a week of auditions and call backs before landing the part.
“I had never done a musical that was based on pop songs, or a pop group,” he said. “I'd only done musicals that were written as musical theater pieces, so this was a new experience. Still to this day, when I hear ‘Dancing Queen' I'm absolutely thrown back to the stage at the Winter Garden Theatre.”
Nolen, who auditioned for the part about a year after he graduated from Yale School of Drama with his master' of fine arts degree in acting, co-starred in the production for more than a year before leaving to work on “Omnium Gatherum,” a play directed by former Yale classmate Will Frears.
“I love musical theater, it is something that I teach and that I absolutely love, but I also, as an actor, needed to work on a really strong, dramatic piece as well,” Nolen said. “‘Omnium Gatherum' ended up being short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, so it was a really exciting adventure, and believe it or not, during an ‘Omnium Gatherum' rehearsal the blackout occurred in New York City – the big 2003 blackout on the east coast. I lived between New York and LA for many years, so my love and loyalty for the city runs deep and I will always be a New Yorker at heart. Although, I always seem to be there when something major happens.”
Nolen received his bachelor's degree in theater and music from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, where he also was the artistic director and an assistant professor of theatre before coming to Texas Tech, where he is beginning his second year.
Mark Charney, the director of the School of Theatre & Dance, said Nolen is one of the new hires who represents the future of Theatre & Dance while having respect for the past and tradition.
“At Texas Tech, we try to practice both scholarly and creative, professional and academic, and Dean is the perfect mix,” Charney said. “He has tons of great experience but knows how to translate it to the classroom. Originating a role is important, too, because Dean can explain just how that occurs, and he can watch as others take on the role.”
Charney said Nolen is one of the program's best teachers, which was evident in the way he coached Texas Tech's Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival acting auditionees.
“He's a patient but very demanding coach, and he makes sure all our students have chosen audition pieces that play to their strengths,” Charney said. “Because he has so much experience he can actually find the pieces that best suit students in the professional world. He also is one of our best ranked teachers. Students love his honesty and how well he integrates his experience into his lesson plans, and I love how much he knows about both the academic and professional world.”
Nolen will perform in Europe this summer and direct a production at the Pegasus Theatre in Dallas in the next year. He also is writing a television script for a pilot of a television series and will continue to teach.
“I will always be an actor. It is who I am, it is my craft,” Nolen said. “I think all actors also should be teachers. I think there is part of us that needs to pass on our craft so I'm a teaching artist, and I act and direct. I still do work as a professional artist. At the same time, I'm so fortunate to teach and share my own experience and what I happen to love about the theater with a new generation who are also as passionate as I am.
“I'm lucky as an actor to be able to teach as well because it informs my own work as I'm working with other young actors. I make sure they know we are all actors together, that I understand their plights, where they're at since I've been there myself. So it's a thrill and an honor to be able to teach. I find that I continue to learn as much about my own work as I do teaching it to others. It's a win-win situation.”